Citizens insures less than 1 million for first time since 2006

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Charles Elmore

Published February 13, 2014


Most companies are proud to announce gains in new customers, but state-run insurer Citizens trumpeted a different kind of milestone Monday.

Citizens Property Insurance Corp. has encouraged hundreds of thousands of customers to leave, shrinking below 1 million policies for the first time since 2006.

The fall from a statewide high of 1.5 million customers two years ago has not come without controversy, including a private insurer providing false rates to at least 14,000 Citizens customers in a transfer offer this year, The Palm Beach Post reported. The erroneously high renewal rates for Citizens made the private company’s offer look better by comparison.

Still, company officials said the development marked an important step in efforts to reduce its size.

“Today’s announcement marks the culmination of efforts from all Citizens’ stakeholders,” said Chris Gardner, chairman of the Citizens board of governors. “A lot of credit needs to go to the state leaders, insurance regulators and agents who have helped Citizens reach this critical milestone.”

Citizens remains the biggest carrier in the state and locally, but the policy count in Palm Beach County has slipped below 105,000, from a high near 150,000 a couple of years ago.

The company’s growth spurt in recent years had been fueled largely by the dropping of hundreds of thousands of Florida customers by such national brand-name insurers as State Farm and Allstate. Florida-based domestic carriers, some of them start-ups, have stepped in to assume more customers, typically through state transfer programs that give customers a choice whether to stay with Citizens.

A new clearinghouse launched in late January is designed to make customers ineligible for Citizens if a private carrier is offering comparably priced coverage. That means Citizens could continue to get smaller in 2014.

The value of property insured by Citizens has fallen from a high of $515 billion in November 2011 to $302 billion, a drop of more than 41 percent, officials said.

In turn, that has reduced the risk of assessments to Citizens customers or those of other insurers to bail out the state-run carrier if bad storms wiped out reserves, although legislative critics have described as “scare tactics” some letters warning about assessment risk.

Non-Citizens customers would pay no assessments and Citizens customers $8 on a $2,000 policy if the worst storm in modern Florida history, Hurricane Andrew, had returned in 2013, The Post reported last year. Assessments could be higher if Florida catches a worse storm than it has seen in modern times, such as a once-a-century disaster. There’s a 1 percent chance of that happening any given year.

“For most Floridians, the biggest news, certainly, is that we’ve reduced possible assessments from nearly $12 billion to under $4 billion following a 1-in-100 year storm,” said Citizens president Barry Gilway. “This reduction has come without the benefits of the clearinghouse, which will further reduce assessment risk.”

That does not mean ratepayers will be free of the risk of assessments under a smaller Citizens. Private insurers who go out of business have their claims paid by the Florida Insurance Guaranty Association, which has assessed ratepayers statewide multiple times as it paid about $2 billion in claims since 2006.